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Part of the Family

The last formal class of the Air Force Chaplain School to be conducted at Maxwell Air Force Base was held Sept. 14-25. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jamie Pitcher)

"Glorifying God, Serving Airmen, Pursuing Excellence."

MILWAUKEE -- One of the greatest parts of being a Chaplain is getting to know some amazing people. In the seven months I've been a part of the 128th, I've been able to get around to different offices and shops and get to know some of you, the men and women that make this wing great. But often it seems a little unfair for me to expect you to open up to me about your personal lives if you don't have a clue who you're talking to. So I thought I would take the opportunity to be a little vulnerable with you and bear a piece of my soul so you know who I am and where I'm coming from in life.

I was born at a very young age. Bad jokes aside, I was incredibly blessed to have a family with a rich heritage of faith and love. Much of who I am began in the tiny Dutch-immigrant town of Oostburg, Wisconsin. Oostburg is a place where God is revered yet word of "what the neighbor's kid did last night" spreads quickly. It's a pretty typical American small town.

My grandparents played very strong parts in shaping who I would become. My maternal grandfather was the family's patriarch. While his income came from farming chickens and running wire for a lighting company, he was widely known as a great theologian and compassionate church elder. I suppose the fact that I ended up a pastor/chaplain has a lot to do with how much he prayed for one son or grandson to become a pastor. My paternal grandfather, a blue-collar truck-driving man, may have unintentionally provided the drive to push me toward the military. He served in WWII as a Navy SeaBee, building runways on Okinawa. He and my grandma live in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Every summer, when my siblings and I were kids, they would take us for a week or so and spend quality time with us. One of the things we would do together was drive around the perimeter of the Oshkosh airport during the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual Airventure fly-in. Thus began my love affair with anything that flew.

These two worlds of ministry and aviation came together on one glorious day in high school. In a career class, a missionary couple explained how there was a need for people to fly small airplanes in and out of the jungle to deliver missionaries and supplies to the remotest parts of the world. I officially had a mission in life. I signed up to attend Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, admittedly as much for its proximity to my then-girlfriend as for its great missionary aviation program. The risk paid off. I was soon scraping my tires through the tops of trees, trying to cheat the ever-elusive displaced threshold at the short-field grass runway where I trained. I still believe there are few things in life as thrilling as pushing on the stick as soon as the trees are cleared and then pulling back just in time to hear the tires whir to life as they kiss the emerald green runway on a summer day. One of the only things more thrilling was marrying that high school girlfriend, Rebecca, in the middle of our junior year of college. Crazy? Probably. Worth it? Without a doubt. She is still the love of my life...and always will be.

As much as I was living the small-plane lover's dream, God had other plans for me. In the middle of my sophomore year, I was literally elbow-deep in my airframe and powerplant course. I was enjoying it, but something just wasn't right. I wasn't finding it as fulfilling as I thought it would be. God seemed to be telling me that he didn't want me spending the rest of my life working on and flying airplanes. So my wife and I soon found ourselves driving across country so I could attend Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.

I knew God was still calling my family and I to some kind of missionary work. The question was...where? While in seminary, I discovered and joined the Air Force's Chaplain Candidate program. During the two years I served as a Chaplain Candidate, I was privileged to serve at Edwards AFB and Brooke Army Medical Center, Ft. Sam Houston, TX.

After graduating from seminary, my family and I moved back home to Oostburg, Wisconsin, where we still live. Soon after, I was ordained as a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the small, conservative denomination my grandpa helped to form way back in 1936. I guess grandpa got his prayers answered after all. During this time I also found a position as a Youth Pastor in a church in Oostburg. I still love and work with the youth in this church to this day.

After ordination, I was commissioned as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserve. I served in the IMA--Individual Mobilization Augmentee--program, drilling out of Offutt AFB for three years. That is, until I got "the phone call." A fellow Presbyterian chaplain had heard about me, the other Presbyterian in the area, and decided to try and get me into the Guard. I resisted at first, but then his line of reasoning became more and more alluring. "The Guard is like a family," he would say to me. People get to know and rely on one another. I really liked that idea. In the IMA world, we used to joke that IMA stands for "I M Alone". I was tired of being disconnected from the mission of my base and all the people who worked there. I wanted a family. I longed for a place where people would count on each other through good and bad.

Needless to say, I've found that at the 128th. In the short time I've been around, I've really felt like part of the family. And for a guy who's known the joys of having a good family...that means a lot. Thank you for welcoming me. Thank you for putting up with all my "new guy" questions. Hopefully, I will be able to return the favor for you if you need it.

My door is always open.

Chaplain Ben Johnson